Energy use in buildings needs to be regulated in order to meet global emission targets, since buildings contribute to around 30% of CO2 emissions in most countries. 

Minu Agarwal, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at CEPT University, teaches students, works on ongoing research projects, and plans future projects in the areas of Building Performance.

Minu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her career in Sustainable Design, through global experiences in energy efficient buildings and a PhD in Building Performance Design from EPFL, Switzerland.

For students, as we transition into a new future dictated by sustainable energy, there is a greater need to come up with solutions driven by cross-disciplinary research and insights from multiple fields !

Minu, can you tell us about your early years?

I grew up in a small town in western Uttar Pradesh in a middle-class family. I faced no particular hardships or major challenges growing up. One thing that my parents constantly drilled into me and my sister fairly early on was that we had to go to a good college, get on our feet and make a living on our own. This repeated message for a girl from UP growing up in the 80s was the only slightly atypical thing about my early years. While this is a fairly common expectation parents have today from boys and girls, back then, this was not always the case. Another aspect where my father had an indelible mark on me was his love of computer programming that he passed on to me. He got me into it fairly early and instead of playing cards or board games with me, we would write little fun programs. This took away my fear of programming (something that I see even today among youngsters) and gave me the love for logic.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

For my graduation, I did Bachelors in Architecture from IIT Roorkee. I also did a masters in sustainable design from the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, USA. After working in the industry for several years, I returned to university again for my PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at EPFL, Switzerland. 

What influenced you to pursue such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

My initial interest in Architecture was based on instinct. I thought that this would be a field I would like. I would draw non-stop as a kid and also played LEGO obsessively. These childhood interests were a subtle reminder that architecture would be a good fit for me. However, once I finished 5 years of education in architecture design, I was still searching for my innate bent of mind towards logic. This drew me towards sustainable building design or performance driven building design where you work to chase quantifiable goals when designing buildings. I took a brief detour and went to work for Infosys given my love for programming and also because beginner salaries for architects were frustratingly low. But once I got there, I realized that I did not relate to the IT world at all. My vision for programming had been what is called “scientific programming” where you write a program/small-tool to solve a given problem while most programming work at IT firms is geared towards building large applications. I could not see myself there long-term. So, I quit and quickly returned to my core field.

The master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University was a turning point where I really found my feet and found my area of work. I think getting that second higher degree (post-graduate) really allowed me to find passion (performance driven building design) in an area of work that I still enjoy (building design). Though I finished my bachelors 15 year ago, I still wake up every single morning filled with enthusiasm and excitement about my work. 

Career building however isn’t just about finding the right field but also about acquiring the kind of attitude and work ethics to flourish in it. Several people that I have encountered during my work (colleagues, bosses) have helped me immensely in setting personal growth goals. However, I regard my husband as the most critical element in my growth journey who has been my life-long in-house critic who will easily point out my weaknesses to me. While receiving criticism is not easy in the moment, if you can embrace it, it can take you to the place where you want to be.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I think over the years I have understood that it’s important to work with the right kind of people and not to pay too much attention to company profiles while choosing where to work. For example, for my second job, I transitioned to a small firm from a large multinational firm. I never hesitated for a second as I knew I was going to work with people with thought leadership in the field and I would get good opportunities to grow.

So, my first serious career shaping job was after my Master’s, with a large multinational building engineering firm as a building physicist. There, I was working to assess building designs proposed by architects and engineers for their energy use and energy code compliance. Just like building fire safety codes and structural design codes, there are energy codes that apply to buildings in order to regulate energy use in buildings for uses like lighting, air-conditioning, ventilation etc. I was looking at all aspects of the building, including building materials, the building shell, space planning, plumbing and mechanical systems. This (building energy performance assessment) is a new and fast evolving field that is critical for meeting the global emission targets that have been defined to limit carbon emissions. Energy use in buildings (residences, hospitals, hotels, offices and other everyday buildings) that we all use, contribute to around 30% of CO2 emissions in most countries. 

My second job was similar in nature but with a much smaller firm. I got to work on a lot more projects and was able to quickly gain a lot of experience. After having worked for about 8 years though, I felt like the learning from projects was quite slow and I decided to apply for a PhD. My objective was to transition into a research and teaching oriented career where there is no limit to your learning curve and you can take it as high as you can. My career decisions at this point were also made keeping in mind my husband’s career which took us to Switzerland where I ended up doing my PhD. I have always tried to dance to the situation and I think I have only benefited from that. 

EPFL, one of the two large government technical universities in Switzerland was an easy and exciting choice to do my PhD once my husband and I moved there. The PhD programs there are fully funded (all PhD students receive a respectable stipend irrespective of the field) that is sufficient for a good quality of life. My PhD advisor there was a world-renowned researcher in the effects of daylight on human health and well-being. It was such an amazing experience to work under her tutelage. I actually had two advisors on board which was another blessing as I got good amount of face-time with them and learned a lot. My second child was born in the middle of my PhD and I thoroughly enjoyed the maternity break where I was away from the usual hectic schedule of the PhD for some time and was able to think and reflect on my work quietly.

Though the PhD is easily the toughest and most challenging thing I have ever done, it has been the most satisfying accomplishment so far. 

I feel privileged to have all the opportunities and support to pursue things that have interested me. But even so, every step, every change requires courage. My early years with my father trained me to never shy away from an opportunity to learn. 

How did you get your first break?

I think getting into a good college with a good peer group is an important first step. This is especially important in the early years. But a good degree from a good college can only take you so far. After I got into IIT, I thought that it would be smooth sailing. But after a few steps (like the first job, admissions into a Master’s program), it’s you and the reputation you build by exhibiting good work ethic on a daily basis and working on yourself constantly are what will take you forward. I don’t think there are any lucky breaks. All lucky breaks require years of hard work, awareness and diligence to arrive at the “right” place at the “right” time. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

One of the big challenges I faced was moving to a new country (USA) after my bachelors. It was a big culture shock. Even though I was fluent in English, it took me several years to feel at ease in a new country and not feel home-sick. At that time, it was helpful to talk to people who had made a similar move and realize that a transition like this is difficult for everyone. 

I also went to work with an engineering firm in my first job in the US and struggled a bit as my background was in architecture. Understanding and working with building mechanical systems on the job was tough. I went and purchased a few books and educated myself with the basics. I enrolled in a local college for a course that helped me get up to speed. Also, a kind colleague at work offered to give me run down of the basics from time to time. I actively worked to get a grasp on things. I was quite surprised at the generosity of people at work who reached out with help, reading material and information regarding learning opportunities. I just had to ask! 

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as a professor at CEPT, University in Ahmedabad, India. There is nothing like a typical day for me and that is what I love about this job. I do both teaching and research work and so I do lots of different tasks, working on ongoing research projects, planning future projects, planning lectures, identifying interesting problems for the classes and also looking for interesting speakers for my class. There is near constant brainstorming of new courses, as well as new ways of teaching existing courses. I also work on consulting projects beyond my academic work as well.

Problem solving happens on many levels for me. I sometimes troubleshoot technical problems (glitches with instruments, hardware) and subject matter related problems. Also, many times my challenge is not to solve the problems myself, but to create an atmosphere where students feel motivated and enthused about solving problems. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Hopefully I am able to motivate the students to work with vigor and rigor in whatever they choose to do in life. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

To see a student’s journey of growth is the most satisfying part of my current job. On a more personal level, in my previous role as a doctoral researcher, I stepped out of my comfort zone and delved into decision theory. At first, I could not make any sense of the subject matter. It was difficult to read even a few pages from books on the subject. But in discussions with experts, I realized that answers to my questions lay in decision theory. Eventually I ended up reading several books on decision theory cover to cover and successfully applied it to my work. The work was appreciated by the committee as it brought new insights from one field (decision theory) into another (performance driven building design). I was also pleased with my own growth journey in this case.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students would be never skip a class, especially from a teacher that you know is good! Let me explain a bit- Sometimes for short term gains, like finishing some pending work, catching up on one particular subject, it can be tempting or one may even feel justified to skip a class. But no matter how good you are, in those 30-45 minutes, you will never be able to acquire that knowledge on your own. So, in the long-term attending a class is the most efficient use of your time. One other advice would be to just say “yes” to opportunities to expand your horizons. Just say “yes”. 

Future Plans?

I consider myself to be a “young” professor, still new to this career in teaching and hope to spend at least the next decade in this area.